The possibility of the privatisation of the general intellect was something Marx never envisaged in his writings about capitalism (largely because he overlooked its social dimension). Yet this is at the core of today’s struggles over intellectual property: as the role of the general intellect – based on collective knowledge and social co-operation – has increased in post-industrial capitalism, so wealth accumulates out of all proportion to the labour expended in its production. The result is not, as Marx seems to have expected, the self-dissolution of capitalism, but the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.
The same goes for natural resources, the exploitation of which is one of the world’s main sources of rent. What follows is a permanent struggle over who gets the rent: citizens of the Third World or Western corporations. It’s ironic that in explaining the difference between labour (which in its use produces surplus value) and other commodities (which consume all their value in their use), Marx gives oil as an example of an ‘ordinary’ commodity. Any attempt now to link the rise and fall in the price of oil to the rise or fall in production costs or the price of exploited labour would be meaningless: production costs are negligible as a proportion of the price we pay for oil, a price which is really the rent the resource’s owners can command thanks to its limited supply.
A consequence of the rise in productivity brought about by the exponentially growing impact of collective knowledge is a change in the role of unemployment. It is the very success of capitalism (greater efficiencies, raised productivity etc) which produces unemployment, rendering more and more workers useless: what should be a blessing – less hard labour needed – becomes a curse. Or, to put it differently, the chance of being exploited in a long-term job is now experienced as a privilege. The world market, as Fredric Jameson has put it, is now ‘a space in which everyone has once been a productive labourer, and in which labour has everywhere begun to price itself out of the system’. In the ongoing process of capitalist globalisation, the category of the unemployed is no longer confined to Marx’s ‘reserve army of labour’; it also includes, as Jameson describes, ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”, who have been deliberately excluded from the modernising projects of First World capitalism and written off as hopeless or terminal cases’: so-called failed states (DR Congo, Somalia), victims of famine or ecological disaster, trapped by pseudo-archaic ‘ethnic hatreds’, objects of philanthropy and NGOs or targets of the ‘war on terror’. The category of the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the temporarily unemployed, through to the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to the inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself as ‘lumpen-proletarians’), and finally to the whole populations or states excluded from the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.
Some say that this new form of capitalism provides new possibilities for emancipation. This at any rate is the thesis of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, which tries to radicalise Marx, who held that if we just cut the head off capitalism we’d get socialism. Marx, as they see it, was historically constrained by the notion of centralised, automated and hierarchically organised mechanical industrial labour, with the result that he understood ‘general intellect’ as something rather like a central planning agency; it is only today, with the rise of ‘immaterial labour’, that a revolutionary reversal has become ‘objectively possible’. This immaterial labour extends between two poles: from intellectual labour (production of ideas, texts, programs etc) to affective labour (carried out by doctors, babysitters and flight attendants). Today, immaterial labour is ‘hegemonic’ in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘common’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.
Hardt and Negri are here describing the process that the ideologists of today’s ‘postmodern’ capitalism celebrate as the passage from material to symbolic production, from centralist-hierarchical logic to the logic of self-organisation and multi-centred co-operation. The difference is that Hardt and Negri are effectively faithful to Marx: they are trying to prove that Marx was right, that the rise of the general intellect is in the long term incompatible with capitalism. The ideologists of postmodern capitalism are making exactly the opposite claim: Marxist theory (and practice), they argue, remains within the constraints of the hierarchical logic of centralised state control and so can’t cope with the social effects of the information revolution. There are good empirical reasons for this claim: what effectively ruined the Communist regimes was their inability to accommodate to the new social logic sustained by the information revolution: they tried to steer the revolution making it into yet another large-scale centralised state-planning project. The paradox is that what Hardt and Negri celebrate as the unique chance to overcome capitalism is celebrated by the ideologists of the information revolution as the rise of a new, ‘frictionless’ capitalism.
Hardt and Negri’s analysis has some weak points, which explain how capitalism has been able to survive what should have been (in classic Marxist terms) a new organisation of production that rendered it obsolete. They underestimate the extent to which today’s capitalism has successfully (in the short term at least) privatised the general intellect itself, as well as the extent to which, more than the bourgeoisie, workers themselves are becoming superfluous (with greater and greater numbers of them becoming not just temporarily unemployed but structurally unemployable).
If the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur who invested (his own or borrowed) money into production that he organised and ran and then reaped the profit, a new ideal type is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur who owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who don’t own the bank) or dispersed investors. In this new ideal type of capitalism, the old bourgeoisie, rendered non-functional, is refunctionalised as salaried management: the new bourgeoisie gets wages, and even if they own part of their company, they earn stocks as part of their remuneration for their work (‘bonuses’ for their ‘success’)…
January 19, 2012
Africa is cast upon the shore of Europe. It isn’t pretty. “I watched mothers throw their babies into the sea”…
January 19, 2012
Two paramedics, a man and a woman wearing green and blue scrubs, toss biscotti to seagulls. They glance out at the open ocean. Behind them, at the old port, their empty ambulance waits. A lone jogger, wearing a sweaty knee brace, runs around the parking lot. He, too, keeps his eyes on the Mediterranean Sea. Although he looks like a tourist, he’s probably a policeman.
The island of Lampedusa is overrun with law enforcement types and immigration agents. Along with relief workers and journalists, leery policemen fill the tourist hotels, restaurants, and beaches. The town is a town of well-muscled men, impeccably tanned. They aren’t my type, frankly. Clad in their tiny white spandex banana hangers, some even brought their girlfriends along on this phony business trip. Their job is supposed to be to police the thirty-seven thousand African refugees who’ve arrived on this island of five thousand. Later, that number will spike to fifty thousand. This massive diaspora is just one side effect of the Arab Spring; it’s also a business. To keep this refugee crisis under control—and to monitor who heads north—Italy collects money from the rest of the European Union. It’s a spectacular show when the open, wooden boats come in, people huddled against the gunwales. In this human drama, the police are the supporting actors. So are the journalists like me, struggling against the cordon to talk to arrivals. So are the paramedics. We are all waiting for refugees.
For thousands of years, Lampedusa has served as a garrison for empires—including, for a time during the 1980s, America’s. On this island, the Romans made garum, a rancid fish sauce. Third-century Christians left a cemetery here. Thanks to other old bones, it’s possible to trace the island’s passage between Christian and Muslim hands until the 1840s, when Tomasi di Lampedusa—ancestor to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who wrote The Leopard—sold the island to the Kingdom of Naples.
The island is politically Europe, but geographically Africa. This is the problem.
What am I doing here?
Reaching the island isn’t simple. I began this notebook in late June on a train traveling south from the Umbrian town of Perugia to Rome. From Rome I traveled to Sicily, and then on to Lampedusa. As a companion, I took along my friend and colleague, Eileen Ryan, who’s writing her dissertation at Columbia University on Libya. She lives between New York and Rome and speaks fluent Italian. My capacity for the language could be described as remedial restaurant, lots of grand gestures and foul-mouthed nouns to compensate for all I can’t say.
On the train, it strikes me that I’ve done a very stupid thing. I’ve left the castle and fifteenth-century farmhouse belonging to Civitella Ranieri, a tiny artists’ colony near the town of Gubbio, where my only job was to read the poet Propertius, or whoever I chose, and maybe to write some poems. Propertius was born in Assisi during the first century BCE. He seems to have been a bit of a recluse. A poet’s poet, he was Elizabeth Bishop in a toga. And he didn’t seem to be constantly kissing imperial ass like some of his contemporaries. His humor allowed him to see himself. “Where are you rushing to, Propertius, wandering rashly, babbling on about Fate?” Clad in a bathrobe, I read this and waded into warm, morning dirt and to zucchini flowers off the vine for truffle frittatas.
So, what, I wonder, on this train to Rome, am I doing leaving that paradise for the coming chaos of refugees? I need a break from silence and a hit of the world. Also, it’s my responsibility. Having reported in Africa for more than a decade, it’s my job to pay attention when Africa washes up on the shores of Europe. So as the crisis struck, I sent a note to one of my magazine editors (not the editor of this one), asking if I could go cover the story.
Also, I write better poems on the move and in odd landscapes. Being in unusual places allows me to feel that I have both an authority to speak and something to say. I can imagine myself as having a frank, fierce encounter with what’s real, even if this has nothing to do with the external world. It is easier to believe the poems are necessary.
Others before me have done the same double work, including James Fenton and Ryszard Kapuscinski, to name the two best. In both, a rage crops up in the poems that is fed by the reportage.
We talk about survivor’s guilt, but not about observer’s guilt. For journalists this is particularly acute, as we are paid to watch suffering and paid more during war. For poets, it’s even worse. It’s Adorno for the twenty-first century. The incomparable horror of Auschwitz has given way to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq…
The Africans arriving from Libya aren’t Libyans. They’re citizens of Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, among other nations. Many are refugees who fled to Libya from their home countries. For years they’ve been trying to outrun Muammar el-Qaddafi, who, in turn, has been blocking their passage to Europe. Along with Libyan oil, Qaddafi’s horrific immigration prisons guaranteed him friends in Europe.
Two months after I visited Lampedusa, twenty-five Africans arrived dead in one boat. Five months later, a stunned Qaddafi was murdered by a Libyan mob.
At the time of my visit, however, such events were beyond imagining. Qaddafi was carrying out his threat to swamp Europe with Africans in a kind of human body warfare reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift, when Castro allowed 124,000 Cubans to flee by boat and overwhelm south Florida. The Libyan ambassador in Italy, Hafez Qaddour, said that Qaddafi “wanted to turn Lampedusa black with Africans.”
It’s impossible to ask new arrivals questions about any of this—or about anything else. As soon as they arrive on, or even near, the island, Italian coast guard ships approach most of the vessels, load the refugees up by the hundreds, ship them into port and deliver them to shore, where they are numbered before being run through a waiting line of police, Red Cross, and other emergency workers, and boarded onto repurposed tourist buses. The buses take them to “centers,” which are immigration prisons, surrounded by barbed wire. Filo spinato sounds less punative in Italian.
The refugees arriving from Libya spend between a few days and a few weeks on the island until their numbers swell to two thousand. At that point, they are loaded onto a ferry and taken to the island of Sicily and to the Italian mainland to yet another center, and another, until eventually, they are granted asylum and allowed to stay in Italy or travel north to other European countries.
The refugees arriving from Tunisia are a different case. Because their lives aren’t at risk if they’re returned to their country, Tunisians are regularly sent home against their will. This is one reason why they’re generally more unruly than the newly arrived sub-Saharan Africans: they have nothing to gain by being cooperative. Two years ago on Lampedusa, someone set fire to the Tunisian immigration prison. I hear different things about who started the blaze. First, it was lit by very pissed-off Tunisians. Second, it was lit by very pissed-off locals, who didn’t want their island, which survives on tourism, to become a safe haven for African refugees, especially Tunisians. Four months later, hundreds escaped from a center and marched around calling for freedom…
January 19, 2012
The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie
How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with the production costs of what Microsoft is selling: i.e. it is not the result of his producing good software at lower prices than his competitors, or of ‘exploiting’ his workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). If that had been the case, Microsoft would have gone bankrupt long ago: people would have chosen free systems like Linux which are as good as or better than Microsoft products. Millions of people are still buying Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, meaning collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed from that.
January 19, 2012
Spurred by rising global demand for the metal, miners are destroying invaluable rainforest in Peru’s Amazon basin
It’s a few hours before dawn in the Peruvian rainforest, and five bare light bulbs hang from a wire above a 40-foot-deep pit. Gold miners, operating illegally, have worked in this chasm since 11 a.m. yesterday. Standing waist-deep in muddy water, they chew coca leaves to stave off exhaustion and hunger.
In the pit a minivan-size gasoline engine, set on a wooden cargo pallet, powers a pump, which siphons water from a nearby river. A man holding a flexible ribbed-plastic hose aims the water jet at the walls, tearing away chunks of earth and enlarging the pit every minute until it’s now about the size of six football fields laid side by side. The engine also drives an industrial vacuum pump. Another hose suctions the gold-fleck-laced soil torn loose by the water cannon.
At first light, workers hefting huge Stihl chain saws roar into action, cutting down trees that may be 1,200 years old. Red macaws and brilliant-feathered toucans take off, heading deeper into the rainforest. The chain saw crews also set fires, making way for more pits.
This gaping cavity is one of thousands being gouged today in the state of Madre de Dios at the base of the Andes—a region that is among the most biodiverse and, until recently, pristine environments in the world. All told, the Amazon River basin holds perhaps a quarter of the world’s terrestrial species; its trees are the engine of perhaps 15 percent of photosynthesis occurring on landmasses; and countless species, including plants and insects, have yet to be identified.
In Peru alone, while no one knows for certain the total acreage that has been ravaged, at least 64,000 acres—possibly much more—have been razed. The destruction is more absolute than that caused by ranching or logging, which accounts, at least for now, for vastly more rainforest loss. Not only are gold miners burning the forest, they are stripping away the surface of the earth, perhaps 50 feet down. At the same time, miners are contaminating rivers and streams, as mercury, used in separating gold, leaches into the watershed. Ultimately, the potent toxin, taken up by fish, enters the food chain.
Gold today commands a staggering $1,700 an ounce, more than six times the price of a decade ago. The surge is attributable to demand by individual and institutional investors seeking a hedge against losses and also the insatiable appetite for luxury goods made from the precious metal. “Who is going to stop a poor man from Cuzco or Juliaca or Puno who earns $30 a month from going to Madre de Dios and starting to dig?” asks Antonio Brack Egg, formerly Peru’s minister of the environment. “Because if he gets two grams a day”—Brack Egg pauses and shrugs. “That’s the theme here.”
The new Peruvian gold-mining operations are expanding. The most recent data show that the rate of deforestation has increased sixfold from 2003 to 2009. “It’s relatively easy to get a permit to explore for gold,” says the Peruvian biologist Enrique Ortiz, an authority on rainforest management. “But once you find a suitable site for mining gold, then you have to get the actual permits. These require engineering specs, statements of environmental protection programs, plans for protection of indigenous people and for environmental remediation.” Miners circumvent this, he adds, by claiming they’re in the permitting process. Because of this evasion, Ortiz says, “They have a claim to the land but not much responsibility to it. Most of the mines here—estimates are between 90 or 98 percent of them in Madre de Dios state—are illegal.”
The Peruvian government has taken initial steps to shut down mining, targeting more than 100 relatively accessible operations along the region’s riverbanks. “There are strong signals from the government that they are serious about this,” says Ortiz. But the task is enormous: There may be as many as 30,000 illegal gold miners in Madre de Dios.
The pit that we visited that day is not far from Puerto Maldonado (pop. 25,000), capital of Madre de Dios, a center of Peru’s gold mining because of its proximity to the rainforest. In a supreme irony, the city has also become a locus of Peru’s thriving ecotourism industry, with inviting hotels, restaurants and guesthouses in the forest, at the threshold of a paradise where howler monkeys leap in tall hardwood trees and clouds of metallic blue morpho butterflies float in the breeze.
On our first morning in Puerto Maldonado, photographer Ron Haviv, Ortiz and I board a small wooden boat, or barca, and head up the nearby Madre de Dios River. For a few miles upstream, wood-frame houses can be glimpsed along heavily forested bluffs. Birds dart through the trees. Mist burns away on the tranquil, muddy-brown river.
Suddenly, as we round a bend, the trees are gone. Barren stretches of rock and cobblestone line the shore. Jungle is visible only in the distance.
“We are coming to the mining,” says Ortiz.
Ahead of us, nosed against the stony banks, countless dredge barges are anchored. Each is fitted with a roof for shade, a large motor on deck and a huge suction pipe running from the stern into the water. Silt and stones extracted from the river bottom are sprayed into a sluice positioned on the bow and angled onto shore. The sluice is lined with heavy synthetic matting, similar to indoor-outdoor carpet. As silt (the source of gold) is trapped in the matting, stones hurtle down the incline, crashing in great mounds on the banks. Thousands of rocky hillocks litter the shoreline.
As we pass one barge—its blue-painted steel hull faded by the intense sun—the crew members wave. We beach our barca and clamber over the stone-strewn shore toward the barge, moored along the bank. A man who appears to be in his 30s tells us that he has mined along the river for several years. He and his family own the barge. The entire clan, originally from Puerto Maldonado, lives aboard much of the time, bunking in handmade beds on deck beneath mosquito nets and eating from a galley kitchen run by his mother. The din from the dredging engine is deafening, as is the thunder of rocks tumbling into the sluice.
“Do you get a lot of gold?” I ask…